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Rachel Mason, prior to becoming an award-winning director and creator of ‘Circus of Books’, was best known as a performance artist who created politically charged work and adventurous experimental performances. 

Mason is known for scaling an eight-story building in a white bodysuit and helmet, and performing Donald Trump’s inaugural speech in a clown suit as a livestream when he took the oath of office. 

Rachel Mason was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program for her Netflix documentary “Circus of Books.” See the trailer HERE.

 

When you had the idea to do a documentary on “Circus of Books”, your parents’ gay porn book store, did you know what direction you wanted to go in? Did the film evolve into something different than you had originally imagined?

I had an editor and a producer that I trusted along the way so that I could have other people to help me look outwardly at the footage and say, “Hey Rachel, this is really important. Use that shot where you cry, because it’s the money shot”—and I couldn’t see it. When I set out to make the film, I didn’t think I should even direct it, and Cynthia Childs was doing most of the heavy lifting, but then the project in a way forced itself into the shape it ended up taking.

The way that interviews would go, often the best lines would come when I was sitting behind the camera, and people like Larry Flynt and Jeff Stryker wanted to talk to only me, and tell me what my parents meant to them. It was very personal. I didn’t initially want to dive so much into my own family, but again, following the story…the story really directed itself. My job as the director was to just guide the ship—the ship being the film—and at many points it was guiding itself. I had an AMAZING editor, Kathryn Robson. I think when you’re making something so personal, it really is important to have other sets of eyes that help you through certain things.

 

Tell us about your journey as a filmmaker.

I studied art at UCLA and then got an MFA in Sculpture from Yale. Back when I was working primarily as a visual artist and musician, I was really obsessed with doing work that had some connection to the power structures all around me. The last project I did in this regard was a character called FutureClown. This became the name of my production company—a clown character who lip-synchs the speeches of politicians. I did Trump’s inaugural speech, which became somewhat of an art world sensation at the moment he took office.

My first film was a historical fantasy called “The Lives of Hamilton Fish” and it focuses on a very obscure subject: two men named Hamilton Fish (the Republican member of the United States House of Representatives and the notorious serial killer) who both died on the same day in January of 1936.

It was a rare coincidence that I happened to discover. I performed live alongside several screenings, and as a result, it was compared to the work of Sam Green, a filmmaker who also does “live documentaries.” But it wasn’t a traditional documentary by any stretch.

My background is as a visual artist, musician and songwriter. Up until I made “Circus of Books,” my films existed exclusively in the art world in an arthouse context and were considered more obscure performance art pieces. “Circus of Books” is my first documentary.

I always knew I needed to make this film, but I wasn’t setting out to become a mainstream director. I was settled into a relatively comfortable obscure art career in the avant-garde world I suppose. But I think the entertainment industry is actually now interested in the voices of outsiders, so, it’s a good time to be a weirdo!

 

After the film was complete, what process did you go through pitching it to festivals, and how did it end up on Netflix?

I had an amazing run with the LGBTQ film festivals—Outfest, Frameline, QDoc, and so many others, and for our U.S. premiere we did Tribeca and then for Global, and The London Film Festival. My sales agent, Josh Braun, brought the project to Ryan Murphy, who became an executive producer—and Josh was instrumental in getting us the Netflix deal.

Josh is also an executive producer on the film and knew that Ryan would appreciate the story. When I met Ryan, he echoed what other people from his generation said, that the store was really important to him when he came to LA as a gay man. He was shocked to discover that the store could be traced back to a straight family with a religious mother! I think my film aligned with what he attempts to do in his advocacy for gay causes. When you have someone at that level of success who happens to be gay and out and doing all of this work for representation in the gay community, it’s a special experience.

 

You and your siblings grew up with your parents owning Circus of Books. How did you and your family handle people at school and within your home community when they found out about the store selling gay porn and being a safe space for LGBTQ life?

I had a really sheltered life from the store. Was brought up just like almost any other middle class Jewish kid might be, I only became aware of it when my own identity as a little baby queerdo started to converge with it. I hung out with the punky kids who were into all things gay, queer, cult film, iconoclastic atypical, and sexual.

The moment of discovery is shown in the film when my friend Fernando says, “Rachel… Circus of Books is a porno store!” My friends were the artists and the gay kids who loved that store, and that’s when it turned into something when I realized, “Oh, wait, you guys go to that store?”It was really my high school friends introducing me to the store that led me to understand its value.

The fact that my parents owned it was super cool. Even though it was completely confusing because I didn’t think my parents weren’t half as cool as my friends.

 

You’re an artist, filmmaker and musician. Have you ever been told to “Get a real job”?

My Mom still says it!! And I think that should tell you something. Ironically, I’ve had many “real jobs”. But they were often the things I did to earn money while pursuing my “career” ambitions of being in the arts. I’ve worked as a recreational therapist, artist’s assistant, and a variety of other jobs.

 

How did you choose the music for “Circus of Books”?

I wanted to pay tribute to the music that was in a lot of the gay porn from the 80s and 90s. Which is foundational to the electronic dance music that we hear all the time in the mainstream. This was originally underground club music made with analog synthesizers. So I worked with an amazing composer, Ian Colletti, who I knew from my days performing in the small indie venues in New York, with so many great weirdo artists—like M. Lamar, Dorian Wood…I truly come out of the arts, and wanted the film to have a sense of that feeling. And so, Ian, being an artist/songwriter musician, was the perfect composer.

 

Compare the AIDS epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a strange twist that the film release lined up with this particular moment in history, while we’re all experiencing the brutal realities of a mysterious virus. But society vilified the people who got sick during the AIDS epidemic. I hope this film does something to draw attention to the many, many unsung heroes in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

 

You brought screenwriter, producer and editor Kathryn Robson into the film after you started working on it. How were you two introduced? How did you know Kathryn was the right person for the job?

I was looking for someone with porn expertise, and I spoke with a good friend and filmmaker Vanessa Meyer, who very randomly told me she knew an editor who happened to do a master’s thesis on porn! When meeting Kathryn she was working at another production company and I immediately felt heartbroken that it wouldn’t work out. But she managed to convince them to let her work on this film, and it was amazing how perfect she was. I inherently trusted her.

 

How did funding work for “Circus of Books”?

Funding is always the biggest challenge. We went the fiscal-sponsorship route and got donations through friends and family, and then got a really amazing EP, Gerry Herman, who was one of the first donors to get us to the amount we needed to do our main production. But in the last year of filming it was so close to the edge. I basically bit off all my nails dealing with the question of how to pay for post-production right as we were delivering.

 

Anything else you’d like to say?

I think that it is so important to find a way to enjoy your life. However possible. That was advice given to me from my friend Levi Steinberg who survived both World War 1 and 2, as well as bouts of typhoid fever. His lasting advice: “Enjoy your life.” And I do like to pass it on.


Written by Ilana Rapp

Ilana Rapp is a media-savvy Generation Xer with instinctive wit, quick humor and a taste for
deep human emotions. As a former (child) actress with Broadway, film and television credits,
she is adept at, well, lots of things. She blogged on The Huffington Post and writes
entertainment pieces for NYCastings and New Jersey Stage. She is a huge fan of the television
show V. Ask her why her favorite number is 22. Follow Ilana on Twitter @LizardLadyNJ